Charter group left frustrated

Published: December 28, 2010 10:00 AM
By By Zack Harold
Tuesday December 28, 2010

Charter group left frustrated

Co-founder of reform group resigns as charter schools remain illegal

by Zack Harold

Daily Mail staff

Sallye Clark, co-founder of West Virginians for Education Reform, has laid down her guns.

Clark said she resigned from the charter school advocacy organization earlier this year out of "frustration."

Charter schools are still illegal in the Mountain State, after two years of numerous failed bills and constant pushing from her group and others.

West Virginia is one of only a few states that don't allow the schools, which are publicly funded but privately run institutions free from many of the policies that govern regular public schools.

"I decided after those special sessions this summer, it was an exercise in futility," Clark said. "We're like Sisyphus, trying to push that rock to the top of the hill. We spent hours and hours and hours unsuccessfully.

"The expediency dissipated after the money for Race to the Top was off the table," she said.

After failing to pass charter school legislation in the 2009 regular session, then-Gov. Joe Manchin called lawmakers back to Charleston in May for an education-focused special session.

Manchin and state education officials wanted to bolster West Virginia's chances at U.S. Education Department "Race to the Top" money by making charter schools legal. 

That session quickly ground to a halt, however, after lawmakers failed to reach consensus on bills. Manchin dismissed the Legislature, promising to call them back in the summer for a second session.

Lawmakers met again in mid-July but again did not pass a charter school bill. Most of their time was spent debating a special election to fill Sen. Robert C. Byrd's unexpired Senate term.

"It's a shame politics gets in the way of what's best for the children of West Virginia," Clark said.

State teacher union officials have fought charter schools, contending the schools would pick and choose students; would drain money from other schools; wouldn't increase student achievement; and wouldn't provide teachers the same job protections as traditional public schools do.

Clark said she would gladly rejoin the group if the political climate changed.

"I'd do it in a heartbeat if I thought there was any future in it," she said.

West Virginians for Education Reform co-founder Ben Adams isn't as active with the cause, either. Adams just finished up his first semester at Northeastern University in Boston where he's studying political science and secondary education.

Adams said, for the most part, the Legislature "doesn't have the political will to do what's right by students in West Virginia."

"There are people in the Legislature who are making the right decisions and are trying to do something, but it's just overpowered by those that are worried about other things," he said.

"Let's put it this way. They had a special session and they had a workgroup and they had everything possible to get something done," he said. "We didn't get anything done. Nothing really of large substance came out of that session."

And that likely won't improve in 2011, he said.

Adams said many lawmakers, expecting a special gubernatorial election in 2011, are now more concerned with running for office than making and changing policy.

"I think it's going to be hard for a Legislature to get anything done - education, pensions, anything like that," he said. "The focus now is on who is governor, who is speaker, who is senate president."

Clark and Adams founded West Virginians for Education Reform in November 2008.

Clark, a retired high school English teacher, told her youth group at Christ Church United Methodist she wanted to bring charter schools to West Virginia. Adams, then a student at Capital High School, was in that youth group meeting and took an interest in Clark's plan.

One of the group's first advocacy efforts was backing state Sen. Erik Wells' "West Virginia Charter School Act of 2009." The bill passed the Senate Education Committee but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Adams recruited Tim McClung to the group in Spring 2009. McClung, a Wells Fargo employee, has pushed for West Virginia charter schools for nearly a decade.

McClung is now handling most of the organization's responsibilities and seems more hopeful about charter schools' prospects in West Virginia.

He said the Legislature could actually be easier to work with if the House and Senate education committees were to get new leadership. And though state lawmakers' attentions are currently turned away from education, "I don't think it's at the back burner of parents, students and teachers that much," McClung said.

 "We're still going to try to get folks to think about charter schools as a type of innovation," he said.

McClung said more people than ever are interested in charter schools but the organization still hasn't become a "functioning nonprofit."

He said the group is only seeking "permission to do something different" and might have gained momentum and members if charter legislation passed last summer.

"We're still just struggling with getting that permission," he said.

The group is currently organizing a policy forum for mid-January, shortly after the legislative session begins. McClung said he plans to invite new members of the Legislature, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other lawmakers.

He said the group is also looking to expand its focus to other education reforms, pointing to Indiana's "New Technology High School" initiative as an example.

Schools that adopt the "New Tech" model, which focuses on project-based student learning, are granted waivers for all state school policies. That would allow the schools to determine their own hiring, firing and scheduling procedures.

McClung said West Virginia could come up with educational models "everybody is comfortable with" and allow schools that adopt those models to run autonomously.

"It's not charter schools per se, but it's a lot accomplished that a charter school would," he said. "It's all around the same idea, but it seems to avoid the word 'charter' and maybe that's another way to attack it."